History by Lightning Leaves Scorched Earth

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I really wonder if I am remotely qualified to review one of the most notorious pictures of all time, The Birth of a Nation, in any manner at all – whether approaching it simply as movie or looking back at the century since it came out taking the entire world of American cinema by storm (and that’s me being very reserved – many of its technical introductions, if not innovations, really transcend nationality of film) having canonized it as an irremovable part of our film history. It is a landmark for better or worse and it’s more mandated as essential viewing for anybody interested in film as a document of historical sensibilities or the craft of the medium itself. And it is immediately accessible to anyone – being in the public domain, on Netflix Streaming Services, and on YouTube, among other ways to find it.

Especially in the face of the state of racial relations here in 2015, it’s especially a tough question to ask if I’m to really shrug off its disagreeable politics and attitudes to just judge the film on solely on its aesthetics or if I’m going to have to recognize that D.W. Griffith’s creative ambition and his narrow viewpoints come from the same places and we have to hit them both head on.

But The Birth of a Nation was always that towering mammoth of a historical picture that I always had half a mind to look back on and review on my own grounds and now that it is 2015 – literally 100 years since 1915, the year of the film’s creation – it comes a point that I realize it is the time to jump into that picture and try to shake out my feelings about it. Though, the fact that 2015 is also a year of significant events alongside the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the Baltimore protests, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland’s deaths, or the Charleston shooting, deserves some mention, I’m not gonna be able to apply this to the The Birth of a Nation‘s criticism the same way that I will when I finally post on Panel & Frame about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly sometime this coming week.

In the meantime, The Birth of a Nation will be something to simply approach as what it is. That’s it.

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And what is the movie on the narrative is the ties that bind and the discord that splits two families close to each other during the Civil War that changed America irrevocably and its aftermath Reconstruction, based on their relations to each other and where they stand. The Northern based family is the Stonemans – abolitionist patriarch Senator Austin (Ralph Lewis), his daughter Elsie (Griffith’s interminable muse Lillian Gish), and his sons Tod (Robert Harron) and Phil (Elmer Clifton). In the Old South resides the more voluminous Camerons – young Southern Gentleman Ben (Henry B. Walthall) will be our primary protagonist and not simply by screentime proxy, but there is also a notable presence in his sisters Flora (Mae Marsh) and Margaret (Miriam Cooper).

In the first act of this infamously 3-hour silent picture, The Stoneman sons join the Union Army while the Cameron sons enter the war on the side of the Confederate (Ben being joined by his brothers Wade and Duke, played by George Beranger and Maxfield Stanley respectively) and so begins the tragedy of their place while the world changes around them as all but Ben are casualties of the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Ben however is still put under legal jeopardy when he gains notoriety as a Confederate Colonel and is forced to be attended to medically in the North by none other than Elsie herself, whom we are early on revealed that Ben has long held a romantic torch for. Elsie and Mrs. Cameron are able to make an audience with President Abraham Lincoln himself (Joseph Henabery) and successfully make a case for Ben’s presidential pardon alongside Lincoln’s many attempted policies to reconcile the Confederacy and Union into one nation again after the Civil War has torn the United States apart.

Lincoln’s post-war attempts are cut short as John Wilkes Booth (who I just realized is played by Raoul Walsh! THAT Raoul Walsh! The guy who made White Heat and High Sierra and if you haven’t seen those, stop and go watch them! Speaking of directors in little roles, here how about that John Ford playing a Clansman?!) executes the President shockingly at the Ford Theatre and Sen. Stoneman and his fellow Congressmen begin to corrupt the Reconstruction to their own vitriolic means against the South as the first Act of The Birth of a Nation concludes.

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And I’m gonna take a break from synopsizing the moving picture to note how remarkably restrained the First Act is in its attitudes, though not less than obvious that Griffith had clear sympathies for the Confederacy beyond narrative. Romanticizing Confederate soldiers is still a classical storytelling trope used to this very day without obligating the work to share the points of view of the Confederacy (the last notable usage to my mind is essentially the Firefly/Serenity franchise, albeit space Confederates), but Griffith goes above and beyond to portray the Southern way of life as fragile and essential – the Cameron daughters particularly as framed as pure young virginal allegories for how perfect life already is while the politicians in favor of the abolition of slavery, namely Sen. Stoneman, are all bluntly high and mighty and flaunting in their idea that they know what is best and that change and progress is necessary (I really fought about whether or not to put progress in scare quotes to portray the movie’s attitude accurately, but I really can’t even pretend to put myself in Griffith’s bigoted perspective). And the minstrel presence of two blackface actors portraying black servants of the families already serves as precursor to the truly ghastly Second Act of The Birth of a Nation, where blackface becomes more than just caricature but an appalling way to visually identify the villains as being the dark and blackened men who act on animalistic instincts in desire of sex – as is the case of Gus (Walter Long) – or supremacy, in the case of the mulatto antagonist Silas Lynch (George Siegmann).

Which causes me to realize I haven’t explicitly acknowledged what it is that portrays The Birth of a Nation as such a problematic film. Let me take a deep breath:

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The screenplay by Griffith and Frank D. Woods is adapted from a novel called The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. and the play Dixon also produced after the novel’s publication. The title of that novel is based particularly on the events of the Second Act where Ben himself is now moved to action by free blacks now mobbing their way into influencing the South to a darker age and, by taking said action, creates the Ku Klux Klan to fight off the Reconstruction.

… Yes. The Birth of a Nation truly shows its distorted colors in its second half and desperately maintains that they’re red, white, and blue.

Anyway, what makes this most shocking is how aesthetically powerful the movie is. There’s a reason it has always been considered a gigantic snapshot of all the capabilities of the cinematic medium in the same vein as Citizen Kane and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and that comes from how impressively stimulating it is. D.W. Griffith brings to the table panoramic shots in full frame 1.33:1, knowing just how to accommodate the scale to fill the image with nostalgic liveliness in the early scenes and surrounding action in the war and raid scenes at the same time using the implication of off-screen space. It utilizes the pointed perspectives of irises to portray the intimate and character-based, alongside the length of the picture desperately attempting to expand the scope into more of an epic and involving atmosphere. It competently contains challenging night scenes and occasionally moves the camera further into the lives Ben and Lynch. Its cross-cutting, of course, by Griffith himself in moments of peril and tension – namely in the infamous scene where Gus chases down Flora while Ben races to rescue her – is the stuff of legend. But what is of course worth noting is that most of these skills are not without precedent, only that The Birth of a Nation is a big enough splash to pioneer them into the basic and involuntary artistry of film and a momentous enough picture in its ambition to be admired for its ability to say the things the way it can.

What really surprises me, though, are the storytelling techniques that are ahead of their time in The Birth of a Nation in both the best ways and less than pleasant ways, and I think they all culminate in its war scenes in the First Act. Continuously pummeling scenes of violence that does the impossible (according to Francois Truffaut) of propelling further and further into the fight without any excitement, but without any sound work to give one more dimension to the experiential part of the film. I especially think sound would have really benefit the slow and lengthy shots where we watch each of the Stoneman and Cameron brothers die and languish, having the unsettling rhythm of war turn more and more distant as their gazes become vacant and we watch their souls leave them. It’s agonizing in a manner it aims for, but not with the same potency as the rest of the film pumps through its veins. What does give the unpleasantness of war its biggest potency is dousing the frame of the war scenes in a visceral red until all is settled and we return to the usual grey of silent cinema, now having more of a thematic meaning as the rubble after the battle has reduced everything to dust. A devastating portrait of war that pre-dates All Quiet on the Western Front, the most devastating of war films.

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You see, the formal construction of The Birth of a Nation is immaculate and while I would not hesitate to claim the following film Griffith made in vague response to this one, Intolerance, would better take artistic flourishes with the tools Griffith displayed here, it is impossible to argue against The Birth of a Nation‘s spot in canon no matter how much we might resent it.

And I really have to admit to resenting it now.

The First Act of The Birth of a Nation is relatively fine, the story it uses its impressive tools for is a naive fiction based on romanticism with its ugliness merely sitting in its pocket. I’d say if it weren’t for that First Act, the movie would be hard to understand what there is to admire about it. Its racism is muted, never impossible to ignore, but sidelined in the way of its emotional manipulation towards faces as genial and attractive as Gish’s and Walthall’s. It’s essentially no different than recognizing Gone with the Wind‘s grandeur alongside its objectionable content.

But that Second Act… that Second Act is like suddenly finding a real nightmare on your hands. It’s the darker side of how skilled someone can be in crafting a despicable narrative in art when he has the talent to do so. That Second Act is completely morally reprehensible, made all the more shocking because it tells its tale almost as well as the First Act, if not for how obviously it dips its hand in melodramatics then.

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For one, Lynch is already introduced as an unnerving psycho who’s devious grin and buggy eyes is just more and more of a manner of turning black people in this movie into cartoons, but it’s nothing compared to the scenes portraying black representatives and voters in Washington as picking their feet, and eating fried chicken, and drinking like, after the Stonemans and Camerons are given broad but sophisticated presences all throughout Act I, we have here the worst Looney Tunes short in existence.

In the meantime, it underlines this misrepresentation of black people with the elitist suggestion that Congress is FORCING white people to salute and allow black soldiers to pass and legislating mixed marriages and at one point a handshake becomes a point of contention between Ben, a revered war hero, and Lynch. Because “are these the sort of people you want marrying your daughters or sitting in your courtrooms? For shame!”

It only gets worse underneath when it uses these tensions to justify summary execution of a black character, turn it around to imply a white man’s life is in danger and more valuable, and finally lets its melodrama go full throttle to release Lynch upon the Stonemans as living plague targeting Elsie herself for his lecherous desires. And my, how fearful I am of how persuasively the actor’s performances and Griffith’s editing takes charge of expressing the peril of Dr. Cameron’s legal charges, the daring heroics of Ben’s Klan riding down to save the two families and the South, the implication that there are “loyal” black folk as well who “know their place” (really, the entire perspective of Griffith’s racism seems less malicious and more absent-minded and that’s severely depressing in what says about American culture in the later 1800s to 1910s), the “unity” that comes from bigotry and subjugating the black population, and… oh boy! The best damn part! the implication of divinity and peace in that same amount of subjugation by tinting the frame again into a golden shimmer and superimposing the image of Jesus Christ over the happy people once the blacks are back in their place and kept from our sacred voting booths by intimidation (I know I stated I’d not to apply 2015 racial relations to this, but seeing mounted horsemen guarding those booths with rifles to scare blacks out really says a lot especially today)! Oh God Bless Us Every One!

It makes me want to spit the taste out of my mouth as soon as it’s off and I can’t help knowing how effortlessly the film feeds these bias ideals towards sexuality, race, and class, by the confidence and stature of its technical achievements. Maybe the fact that we recognize its persuasiveness is exactly what holds it as an eternal tenet towards moviemaking and the expressiveness of the visual and image-based, but you cannot by any means separate the politics from the art when the two are so very much intertwined as they are here. Especially in consideration of how aggressive it announces those principles it has around its second half. It’s just how it goes. I respect as a picture, but in the end, I don’t think anyone is obligated to. And I wouldn’t dare suggest one should reject their feelings for it, one way or the other. But that doesn’t mean I have to give it all of my respect nor do I have to look up to Griffith or the hypocrisies of this movie’s portrait of America’s virtue as threatened by integrating black people and whites together and then ending on this pompous note:

Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead — the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace.

… Fuck off.

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3 thoughts on “History by Lightning Leaves Scorched Earth

  1. Lillian Gish interminable?! :O Otherwise I completely agree with this excellent review. On the one hand, dismissals of the film as “boring” or of its style as not being worth discussion except to tick off a bunch of innovations (that weren’t even really innovations) totally miss the point. It IS a powerful film, it IS often moving (at least in the first half), and it DOES stand as a towering achievement that should be seen by everyone interested in filmmaking.

    And it is also disgusting and despicable, especially in the second half and it would be impossible and foolish to attempt any discussion of the film without addressing its virulent racism. I’ve had much the same experience as you the several times I have seen the film: first, thinking “well, this is definitely objectionable but not really more so than a lot of other classic films” and then after the halfway mark “holy shit, this is appalling to watch!”

    In some ways, this actually marks it as a MORE (inadvertently) useful and instructive film than Gone with the Wind, which still manages to disguise or sweeten its bigotry and elitism, because no one can watch The Birth of a Nation without immediately being aware how integral racism is to Confederate apologia but also how cryptically fascist a lot of film technique can be. Seeing how convincingly Griffith dresses up white supremacy makes us aware of how we might be getting manipulated by other movies, into accepting values or premises we might otherwise reject.

    It’s a film that should be seen, discussed, appreciated, and objected to in perpetuity for all of those reasons.

    • If the word “interminable” has that reaction from you, then it is clear I don’t know what it means and it is grievously misused in this context.

      Your point about Gone with the Wind is pretty revelatory to me, though. In retrospect, the incompetent and caricatured manner in which the characters of Mammy and Prissy et. al are portrayed really stung with me even as it sits in my favorites, but you’re right in that the movie really tries to be slick with its racism in a manner that, in retrospect, might actually anger me more than The Birth of a Nation’s self-righteousness to some degree.

      • Thought you meant she was tedious, but if you meant timeless, I agree!

        GWTW is a fascinating film. It’s definitely a favorite of mine as well (in fact, it’s the very next entry in my Favorites series next week)! But definitely one of those that falls into the deeply “problematic” category not so much because of the way it conveys noxious attitudes – so many great or favorite films do that, albeit usually in smaller quantities than a film set in the old Confederacy – but because of the way it disguises or sugars them. That said, I think Hattie McDaniel in particular is able to transcend the material a lot of the time, and fully deserved her Oscar (Butterfly McQueen, at least partially because of the character she was playing, is much less successful in escaping cliche/caricature). One of the reason I love the movie in fact is that there’s so much going on there, so many different ways it can be looked at. It certainly romanticizes the Old South, but also depicts the Lost Cause as foolish/destructive and its sympathies are much more aligned with Rhett than Ashley. It lulls us into a bucolic escapist fantasy, but the message of the movie is extremely anti-escapist. It is shockingly cavalier about rape, but also fairly feminist in its admiration of Scarlett (who to complicate things even further is also unflinchingly depicted as selfish and elitist). It’s a slick entertainment that is also a very complicated, divided work of art.

        That said, in an odd way, The Birth of a Nation may be much more conducive to starting a productive discussion about race than Gone with the Wind simply because it makes the subject inescapable.

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